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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Whooping Cranes

Whooping cranes dancing.
(USFWS photo)

1.      What is a whooping crane?  The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. It is also the rarest of all the world's crane species. It stands 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of almost 8 feet wide. As an adult, it weighs about 15 pounds, is bright white in color with dark legs, a dark bill, black wing-tips, and black facial markings. It also has a bright red cap of pebbly skin on the top of its head covered with sparse black hair-like feathers. This is called its crown.  The whooping crane is a wading bird that eats a varied diet consisting of both animal and plant foods. It depends on wetlands to survive. 

2.      Why are they called whooping crane? The whooper gets its name from its call. Cranes make a variety of sounds, but most cranes have a special one that it performs with its mate, called a unison call. The whoopers' call is louder than many other crane species and can be heard over great distances. The reason the whoopers are so loud is because of their trachea. We have tracheas, too; it's the tube in our throat that we breathe through. Cranes have a very long trachea, which coil inside their breast bone. The whooper's trachea coils around twice, like a French horn, and that gives the bird its loud resonance. 

3.      How can you tell the difference between the male and female? Sometimes you can't. Whooper males and females are colored exactly alike--white with black wing-tips--unlike many birds such as robins or bluejays that have different shadings of color that make it obvious which is male or female. Male whoopers are often larger than females, which can help us identify them, but this is not reliable since there can be smaller males or larger females. Biologists can often tell the sexes apart by their behavior, especially when they call since males and females have a slightly different way of calling. But even this isn't completely reliable. In captivity, to be sure of the sex of a whooper, we take a small blood sample and send it out for analysis. This blood sample can be used as a positive way to identify the sexes. We need to know the sexes of the young birds we are sending out for release, so that we don't send too many males or too many females and skew the ratio in nature. And we need to know the sexes of the young birds we are keeping so we can pair them together properly when they get older. 

4.      Do whooping cranes mate for life? Generally speaking, yes. Whoopers usually court a mate for a certain period of time before "settling down." During this courting period, the pair may split up and choose other mates. Once whoopers are old enough to nest and lay eggs, the permanence of the pair may depend on whether or not they successfully raise chicks. A young pair that doesn't have "nest success," that is, that doesn't successfully raise a chick, may separate and find other mates. Producing young is the most important goal. Once whoopers settle with a mate and rear chicks, the pair will usually be permanent unless one of them dies. An experienced pair will often stay together even if their nest fails one year, since they've had success before. 

5.      Where are whoopers from? Historically, the whooper's breeding range stretched from Alberta, Canada to the southern end of Lake Michigan. The wintering grounds included parts of northern Mexico, the Texas Gulf coast, and parts of the Atlantic coast. There were groups of non-migratory whoopers that lived in Louisiana, and possibly some other areas in the southeastern United States. There was a sharp decline of the population of whoopers starting in the 1800s due to man-made changes of habitat, hunting, and feather and egg collecting. By the 1940's, fewer than 20 birds survived in a single remaining flock. Thanks to conservation efforts and international cooperation between Canada and the United States, this wild flock of whoopers currently has about 188 birds. The flock migrates between a northern area of Canada, Wood Buffalo National Park, and a southern area of the United States, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas on the Gulf coast. The whoopers spend their winter in warm Texas, but return to Wood Buffalo every spring to nest. It's a journey of almost 2700 miles. 

6.      What kind of habitat do whoopers need? Whoopers use a variety of habitats. They breed in a remote area of mixed forest and wetlands. They use croplands, marshes, and submerged sandbars during migration. In the winter, they use bays and coastal marshes. The loss of wetlands, which are often drained for development and agricultural use, has a direct impact on the whooping crane along their migratory route. Without these areas to stop, rest, and feed, the migration becomes much more difficult. 

7.      Why are we releasing whoopers in Florida? In order to save the whooping crane, we need at least two more flocks that are independent from the original wild flock. These additional flocks will be insurance if a catastrophe, like a hurricane, tornado, or disease outbreak, wipes out the original wild flock. Scientists hope to establish a successful non-migratory flock in Florida, and another migrating flock elsewhere in the United States or southern Canada. Many people and organizations have been working together to set up release sights in central Florida where young, captive-raised whoopers can be taken and allowed to adjust to life in the wild. These birds will form the core of a whole new flock that will live in Florida year-round. 

8.      How many whooping cranes live in Florida now?  There are about 90 whoopers living in Florida now. Last year, several adults made nests and laid eggs, but no chicks were hatched. This year, among the pairs nesting one pair has successfully hatched chicks. This is the first time captive-reared birds have bred and hatched young in the wild.  

9.      How many cranes are at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center? Right now there are 47 adult and juvenile (1 year old) whoopers at Patuxent. There are 9 breeding pairs. As of April 24, 2000, we also have 8 whooper chicks, but they won't be part of the official count until they're much older. 

10.  What is the total population of whoopers, including wild and captive birds? As of February, 2000, there were 188 whoopers in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo wild population, 3 whoopers left in an experimental Rocky Mountain population, and 91 in the experimental Florida population, for a total of 282 whoopers in the wild. In captivity, as of February, there were 47 whoopers at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center with 9 breeding pairs. There were 30 whoopers at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, with 6 breeding pairs. Twenty-one whoopers live at the Calgary Zoo breeding facility in Canada, with 3 breeding pairs. Four whoopers live at the San Antonio Zoological Gardens in Texas, with 2 breeding pairs. And there are 4 whoopers living in other captive facilities: the Lowery Park Zoo, Tampa, Florida, the White Oak facility in Mississippi, and the Audubon Institute, New Orleans, Louisiana. The total number of birds in captivity is 106. This means that the total number of whoopers in the entire world is 388. There are more pandas alive today than cranes. Cranes are one of the most endangered families of birds in the world, and the whooping crane is the rarest of all crane species.

Click here to ask questions about our chick or Patuxent's crane program. 

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U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, 
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA
Contact: Jonathan Male
Last Modification: 14-June-2000@15:23 (edt)
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